JACK BOKIN IS BEHIND bars, sentenced to 231 years to life in prison for his murderous attacks on prostitute women. We still need to know why so many women had to be hurt before this known predator was brought to justice. We are pressing for an inquiry into the actions of the police and district attorney’s office in the Bokin case. Such an inquiry will expose the discrimination that women, especially prostitute women, face within the criminal justice system. Perhaps it will open the way to a less sexist and racist treatment of all female victims.
Prostitutes are especially vulnerable to violence. Not because charging for sexual services is intrinsically dangerous, but because the women who do it are criminalized and denied protection. ln the same way, women assaulted by their partners are often dismissed by police as “just a domestic.”
Men are quick to take advantage. In September, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a historic resolution calling for vigorous prosecution of those charged with violence against sex workers. It also calls for the $7.6 million the city currently spends to enforce anti-prostitution laws to be redirected into services and resources sex workers desperately need.
We’ve been campaigning for this for years.
Not everyone has been keen to provide practical help. Mayor Willie Brown and Supervisor Amos Brown, backed by property developers, tried to introduce a car-seizure ordinance. The law would have-allowed police to seize people’s cars on the suspicion of committing a crime, then profit from the car’s sale.
Fortunately, the proposal was defeated. Our women’s groups, the National Lawyers Guild, Mission District residents and Supervisor Tom Ammiano opposed it. There was grave concern that such an ordinance would foster police corruption, be used to target people of color and fuel violence against sex workers. Invariably, anti-prostitution drives affect the most vulnerable first.
The supervisors’ resolution is a positive breakthrough. But to genuinely benefit sex workers’ safety, we must now ensure that the money and resources no longer used for prosecutions go directly into women’s hands and into services independent of the police department. Services for prostitute women will not succeed if they are modelled on the John’s School. Prostitutes’ clients are pressured to attend this fast offender program as an alternative to prosecution – and they pay a high fee.
They are lectured and harangued as naughty children. Such a crude puritanical mix of moralism, intimidation and profiteering – or any compulsory scheme for prostitutes – would defeat the purpose of the new supervisorial resolution.
About 70 percent of prostitutes are mothers; mostly single mothers. Women do not want to be forced into hostels or rehabilitation schemes that are little better than prisons, where their children are taken away and where they face patronizing and judgmental staff.
Our project, In Defense of Prostitute Women’s Safety, asked women working the streets what kept them in prostitution. They answered with one voice: lack of housing and childcare.
Welfare reforms, which discount the socially necessary work of mothers and other caregivers and push women into destitution, are much to blame for prostitution. It is one of the few jobs open to most women that pays above minimum wage.
Welfare, good and affordable housing, pay equity and childcare are essential for women who choose to leave prostitution. And those who choose not to leave should be able to work independently, without state interference other than the protection that every woman is entitled to.
Effective implementation of the new resolution, which seeks effective prosecution of rapists like Jack Bokin, can begin to put an end to the stigma and vulnerability that criminalization of prostitution creates.
In last week’s supervisors runoff election, voters rejected Mayor Brown’s and Amos Brown’s harsh anti-prostitution policies. Voters chose candidates backed by Ammiano, currently president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. That shows voters care about every woman’s safety and everyone’s right to affordable housing and a life without discrimination.
Discrimination against sex workers ultimately affects all women. No prostitute is safe if she is treated like a criminal. No woman is safe when some of us are not.
Rachel West is spokeswoman for US PROStitutes Collective. Lori Nairne is coordinator of Legal Action for Women.
By Rachel West and Lori Nairne, San Francisco Chronicle, Wed December 20, 2000. Open Forum, Opinion